Breaching the Billionaire: Alethea's Redemption
Page 9

 Ruth Cardello

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“What are you trying to stop Lil from losing?”
“Everything,” she said angrily, and knocked the pyramid over, not caring about the glare the bartender gave her as some crashed to the floor. “But they don’t see that. They think I’m looking for trouble where there is none. I’m done caring what they think of me. I should just let it all fall apart—then they’d miss me.” She leaned closer to him until their lips almost touched. “Even you would miss me. Admit it.”
Marc coughed. “This isn’t a conversation we should have in a public bar. Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
He helped her up and she leaned against him. “If you think sleeping with me will get me to tell you everything, you’re song . . . so wrong.” She corrected herself as she stumbled over her words.
“We will be together, Alethea, but not tonight,” he assured her with a cocky smile, walking her out of the bar, his arm around her waist to steady her.
Heaven. Too bad I probably won’t remember this. He put her in the passenger seat of his car and buckled her in. While he did so, he was close, too close. She said, “I want to hate you, but you smell so good.”
“Oh, my little warrior, you’re drunk.”
“Not enough. I can still feel my feet. I was hoping for absolute oblivion.”
“Alcohol is never the solution.”
Alethea shrugged. “Judge me all you want. I know I’m not perfect. I’ve made mistakes. Who hasn’t?” As she spoke she sank farther into the seat and closed her eyes. “You think I want to be like this? I don’t. I want to believe in the illusion of safety. But I can’t. Ever try to write a letter to Santa after you’re told he doesn’t exist? My life is like that. Just like that.”
His voice was unexpectedly gentle. “I was with you until the Santa reference.”
Alethea’s eyes opened slowly and she looked across the car at him. It might have been the alcohol. Okay, it’s definitely the alcohol. But Marc sounded like he cared. The pain and fear she could normally conceal from the world spilled forth. “I lost my father because I was too trusting, too naïve to protect him.” She looked out the window at the blur of traffic, felt instantly queasy, and turned back to him.
He glanced at her, studying her in a way that made her regret speaking so honestly. “Your father died of a heart attack at home, didn’t he?”
What does it matter if I tell him? No one believes anything I say anyway. “That’s what they told me, but there was this guy. And the papers. Then we moved across the country so fast. I knew what happened even before I knew what happened. You know what I mean?”
“I’d like to say I understand what you’re saying, but you’re not making much sense. Let’s get you home. You can tell me tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. She closed her eyes again. Does it have to come? Can’t we stay here? Just you and me. No problems to solve. No one telling me how they would love me if . . . if . . . if I weren’t me. Just the sweet comfort of your body against mine, and just enough numbness to not care why it’s wrong.
She imagined the two of them falling into her bed, ripping off each other’s clothing as they did. Despite how her head was spinning, she smiled.
“We’re here,” Marc said, and Alethea realized she must have passed out. See, that’s why I should drink more—I’m a lightweight. The term amused her and she laughed out loud.
Marc gave her a puzzled look, which only made her laugh more.
While he half walked, half carried her through the garage beneath her building, she gave in to temptation and slid a hand beneath his suit. His stomach was rock hard, just as she’d imagined it. “Nice,” she said.
She felt his sharp intake of breath before he took her hand in his and held it away from him. “You’re not making this easy,” he groaned.
She smiled up at him cheekily. “Because you want me. I know you do. I see the way you look at me.” As they entered the elevator, he leaned her against the railing and stepped back. She swung an arm around for emphasis. “You were off limits because I didn’t want to upset anyone, rock the cart, upset the boat . . . whatever. But now it doesn’t matter. They’re all angry with me anyway.”
She stumbled and dropped her key when the elevator stopped at her floor. He picked up the key, then swung her up in his arms. She laid her head on his shoulder and breathed him in. Like her, he didn’t wear artificial scents. His smell was delightfully, simply him. She knew she should tell him to go, but for just a moment she let herself savor being held. Not since she was a child had someone made her feel protected, and in his arms, she finally felt safe.
He opened the door with one hand, carried her through to her living room, eased her back onto her feet, and stepped away from her. Alethea fought the desire to follow him, climb back into those strong arms, and recapture the brief feeling of peace.
But she didn’t. She stood there, swaying slightly, wondering why he looked unhappy when she’d offered him a night of pleasure.
He walked around her apartment, studying the bare walls and sparse décor. “Why don’t you have better security?” he demanded.
What is he angry about? “I offered to let you spend the night and you’re worried about what kind of alarm I do or don’t have?”
He walked over and scowled down at her. “I imagined you’d have fifty bolts on your door and a high-tech security system.”
She waved at the door and its basic lock and bolt. “I protect what’s important. My computer is practically set to self-destruct if tampered with.”
“You don’t care if anything happens to you, do you?”
Those blue eyes looked right through her bravado and into her soul. Huskily, she admitted, “I haven’t since that day.”
His face tightened with anger. “Come on, let’s get you to bed.”
The idea had held appeal earlier, but now the room spun and Alethea’s mouth suddenly dried. “I don’t think it’s a good idea anymore . . .”
A faint smile curled one side of his luscious, delicious lips. “I’d love to join you, but not like this.”
“Excuse me,” she said in a rush, stumbled for the bathroom, dropped to her knees, and threw up into the toilet. She felt his hands in her hair, holding it back from her face as she retched again. Yep, I know how to turn a man on. When she sat back on her heels, shaking and dizzy, he handed her a cool, wet towel for her face. “Just go, Marc.”
He squatted down next to her, pushing some of her hair back behind her ears and said, “You need water, aspirin, and to sleep this off. Are you going to throw up again?”
Vomit again? No. Die of embarrassment—well, that was still a definite possibility.
“No.” She stood up quickly. Her legs were like jelly beneath her now and the room tilted. “Probably not,” she said with less certainty.
Marc swung her up in his arms. She closed her eyes and, despite her churning stomach, let herself enjoy the moment. There it was—that feeling of being cared for again. Even if it wasn’t real, even if he would have done the same for anyone in her condition—it still felt unbearably good. He carried her to her bedroom and set her gently on the edge of her bed, then hunted through her bureau and returned with the ridiculous flowered cotton nightgown with the high neckline that her mother had sent as a present and which she hadn’t had the heart to throw away. That was all their relationship was now: holiday and birthday gifts that revealed how little they knew each other. I’ve worn gym shorts and T-shirts my whole adult life, but since I never see her, I guess she wouldn’t know that.
“Stand up, turn around, and strip,” Marc said roughly.
She stood, narrowed her eyes, and wagged a finger at him. “Shouldn’t you turn around?”
He shook his head and said, “I have to make sure you don’t fall on your face.”
Just how drunk does he think I am? In an act of defiance, she faced him and reached for the zipper of her dress. I’m not ashamed of how I look. Her fingers fumbled with the zipper and it snagged a few inches down.
He watched her with a combination of desire and amusement. “Let me help you.”
She smacked his hand away. “I can do it myself.” She grabbed the hem of her dress and pulled it up, forgetting how snug the material was. She gave it an angry yank upward and found her arms wedged tightly over her head while the cool air teased her exposed breasts and midriff.
With a growl he said, “Why are you so stubborn? There is no shame in needing help now and then.”
She tried to pull away from him and almost fell forward, still trapped in the dress that was half up over her head. “I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone.”
With one strong move, he hauled her back against him, held her struggling body with an arm around her waist, and pulled the dress over her head and off. In a flash, he replaced it with the nightgown and turned her to face him. “Everyone needs someone.” He pulled back the covers, eased her beneath them, and said, “Don’t go to sleep yet. I’ll be right back with some water.”
During his short absence, a deep sadness settled over her, as the alcohol brought out the truth she usually withheld even from herself. You’re right. I don’t want to be alone. I want to be the friend Lil can invite to all of those family events she now throws. I do care what they think of me.
I just don’t know if I can be the person they want me to be.
She sat up when he returned and obediently took the pills he held out. Then she flopped back into her bed. The sweet oblivion she’d sought earlier arrived and she sank into a deep sleep.
Marc pulled a chair closer to her bed and settled himself into it. He wasn’t going anywhere.
In sleep, she looked peaceful and delicate. It was difficult to reconcile her sweet features with the persona she projected to the world. He’d always assumed that her over-the-top behavior was driven by an addiction to adrenaline rushes and the need to be right.
That wasn’t the woman who lay before him.
This woman had endured some trauma she couldn’t face. In his years in the Marines he’d seen frontline action. He’d seen how the horrors of war affected people differently. Some became numb to it. Some left tormented by nightmares. War shaped a person, and never all for the good. No matter how they dealt with what they’d seen, with what they’d done—a part of them was forever changed.
Alethea’s pain called out to his own, reminding him of his darker side that he kept boxed up and hidden.
He knew exactly what Alethea had been looking for at the bottom of those shot glasses, because he’d sought the same his first few months after leaving the Veterans Hospital. Drinking hadn’t solved his problems; in fact, it was the reason he hadn’t gotten that famed department store job. His bloodshot eyes had belied how he’d spent the night before his interview.
Which made the second chance Dominic Corisi gave him, after he saw Marc on the news, so undeserved. Dominic’s computer empire was quickly growing, and he knew he needed security, but he was also one who didn’t trust many people. Marc still shook his head when he remembered how Dominic had put him in charge.